“Stranger,” which runs until March 7 in the Loeb Experimental Theater, opens with a scene familiar to any airplane traveler: Stiff, starched flight attendants recite safety regulations while two seatmates awkwardly exchange greetings. In this case, the seat mates are Hush (Dylan J. Peterson ’17), a bearded Bible-bearer, and an unnamed woman in sleek, dark clothes (Elizabeth K. Leimkuhler ’15), who strike up a tentative conversation. Initially, “Stranger,” under the direction of Garrett C. Allen ’16, presents itself as a restrained, minimalist, psychological investigation into the pain of everyday life. What it eventually turns into, though, is significantly grimmer and more ambitious: a Hitchcockian spiral into madness, horror, and suffering. This escalation succeeds due to the cast’s tightly constructed and thoughtful delivery and effective technical execution. Strong acting helps the play deliver on its premise, and, despite momentary deficiencies of subtlety and a faintly inadequate ending, “Stranger” fascinates and unsettles.
At “Stranger’s” start, Hush shows no interest in interaction, but the woman beside him insistently manufactures a conversation. A nervous flyer, she seems to use frantic talking as a way to mitigate her fear, a tic that also manifests itself in her trembling body and fussing hands. She reveals personal secrets and asks searching questions; Hush begins to listen, then to speak. Over the next half hour or so, their pasts and inner lives begin to unfold in a kind of harmony of pain as each of them seeks a form of exorcism through one another.
The cast is tiny, consisting of only four people—apart from Peterson and Leimkuhler, Juliana N. Sass ’17 and Cole V. Edick ’17 play a progression of remembered people, emerging from the stage’s periphery and occasionally taking center stage. For the first half of the play, the set consists of two disembodied airplane chairs before a V-shaped room, which is kept in darkness. When Sass’s and Edick’s various characters appear, they step forward into the light and occasionally interact with Hush and the female passenger. Hush and the woman stare off into the middle distance, seeing them and not seeing them at the same time. It is a clever directorial choice and an excellent way to represent memory. Sass and Edick prove their acting skills in these parts, alternately portraying vapidity, terror, and humor when called upon to do so.
The two main actors give similarly strong performances. As the female passenger, Leimkuhler is fantastically compelling: She commands and manipulates audience attention with apparent ease and creates profound depth in her character through precise modulations of posture and voice. She expertly conveys a wide set of emotions ranging from scattered friendliness to glassy emptiness to giddy power to gut-wrenching rage; Leimkuhler somehow manages not only to make the individual feelings intensely credible but also to portray the swings in emotion believably.
As her foil, Peterson plays Hush well but with slightly less magnetism. By portraying the character as an indrawn, silent stoic, he relies almost entirely on slight expressions in his eyes; frequently, the subtlety pays off, and Hush reveals a flash of startling agony, longing, or rage. Sometimes, though, the technique is a little too subtle to be entirely effective. In one scene—that, without giving too much away, involves harrowing rage and insanity—Hush seems a little too subdued for the situation described and even borders on flat.
Together, though, Peterson and Leimkuhler create excellent chemistry. The complex tension between them remains detailed and palpable, even when only one of them is speaking: The listener always continues to act, reacting and responding in undistracting but crucial ways. Fortunately, the actors are given plenty of material with which to demonstrate their talents. The script explores major themes of power, gender, religion, and interpersonal connection, and the cast capitalizes on that base with nuance, intensity, and intelligence. In a particularly powerful moment, Leimkuhler quotes Genesis, emphasizing the story’s dark implications. “Always blame the woman,” she snarls. At moments, though, despite the actors’ strong performances, the play feels pedantically heavy-handed: The title is repeated one time too many, and a painted cross appears somewhat clumsily on a critical prop.
These slight issues become prominent in the play’s ending, which feels inadequate. It comes about abruptly, without a completely satisfactory resolution of plot or theme; it also presents a new component of the main relationship that seems more bizarre and sensationalist than credible. The denouement isn’t necessarily terrible, but it doesn’t do justice to the rest of the show’s heavy, loaded vividness. Although the ending is the stuff of mere melodrama, “Stranger” remains, for the most part, a wonderfully serious show.
—Staff writer Charlotte L. R. Anrig can be reached at email@example.com.
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